the Ecogothic

Restless moors. Brooding fogs. Eerie twilights.

While nature can awe, heal and give us a sense of grounding in the world, it can also unsettle us.

Haunted forests. Enraged storms. Desecrated rivers…

Ecogothic landscapes refuse to act as a mere backdrop to human action. They manifest as animate, sentient landscapes. They are never merely empty reservoirs awaiting human action to give them meaning. Rather, they are filled with nonhuman actors and agents whose person-alities range from the sinister to the beatific.

Why are ecogothic landscapes important to engage with? What can the gothic tradition offer to a society confronting climate change—particularly the task of rebuilding broken relationships with the natural world?

I think the ecogothic profoundly challenges taken-for-granted assumptions about what it means to be human. In ecogothic landscapes, humans cannot comfortably assume that they are the most important species, standing above the rest of nature as a superior life form. Western ways of metaphysically privileging the human suggest that “only humans” can interpret and make sense of reality in a meaningful way. Instead the ecogothic points to shared processes and inter-relationships among human and nonhuman actors.

And it isn’t always easy to share or to inter-relate with non-humans. Relating to our beloved pets is one thing…but what about the more “difficult” forms of nature.

Human inter-relationships with nature are almost always embedded in the fraught histories of Western colonization, industrialization and development. On a global scale, ecogothic landscapes include anthropogenic wildfires, polluted rivers and lakes, plasticized oceans, a US-Mexico border “wall,” and oil spills—to name a few. Yet ecogothic landscapes can also include a tree which is killed because its leaves or roots are a “nuisance” to a homeowner, the fragment of a lost-river buried beneath an urban expressway, a garbage incinerator spewing toxins into a poor neighborhood, and sewage which oozes into a  basement after an “extreme weather” event.

Landscapes who are alive in complex moral ways are main characters in ecogothic stories.  Sometimes these landscapes merely unsettle us. Often they are unwelcome. (Less and less are they strangers.) At best, however, ecogothic landscapes force many of us to question our assumptions about the superiority of the human. This, it would appear, is a vital task; especially as we eschew climate fatalism and doomism and (humbly and effectively) take-on the tasks of fostering a flourishing future—for everyone.

© Hilary Scharper


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